Boris Johnson has finally resigned. Although it will take him a while to go, a new prime minister will be in place by the autumn. To refer back to a previous piece, getting rid of a Tory leader is a bit like a cat ejecting a furball; it may be a messy, noisy process but the offending item is removed in the end.
This removal came just 31 months after Johnson’s party won a spanking majority in the 2019 general election, entitling him to a five-year term. In effect, he has been removed half-way through his period of office. No wonder he gave a defiant, graceless farewell speech; he had recently spoken of his desire to rule until the 2030s.
Chaotic though the process may be, it is still good news for the health of the British political system. Johnson is going because, unlike the US President, he has no personal mandate from the electorate. The prime ministership belongs to the head of the party that can command a majority in the House of Commons; it is the party’s mandate, not the leader’s.
As a result, it is quite common for prime ministers to depart between elections. Of the last six premiers, four (Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and May) did so while only Major and Brown departed after defeat at the polls. In contrast, the only living US President to do so was Richard Nixon. His departure required a bipartisan consensus on ethical standards that just does not exist today. When it came to Donald Trump, Republicans simply denied or ignored his many sins.
So it is to the credit of Conservative MPs that they finally got around to realising that Johnson’s lies and contempt for ethical standards meant he was unfit for office. Of course, there is a much greater debt; they appointed him leader and put him in charge of the country when his mendacity and ethical failings were well known.
But the British system meant he was removed. In the US, there are only two avenues for removal. Impeachment, which will fail as the senators vote on party lines and a two-thirds majority is required. And the 25th amendment which has yet to be invoked (and which is really designed for a health emergency like a stroke). If re-elected in 2024, Trump will not be removable and in any case, has shown contempt for the democratic process even when he does lose.
Another example of the superiority of the British system is that a prime minister can get things done. A President who faces a hostile Congress (as will likely be the case next year) is powerless in domestic policy. Now, of course, in a hung Parliament, a British prime minister can struggle to push through his or her agenda, as we saw between 2017 and 2019. But had Theresa May been more flexible, and not opted for a hard Brexit, she might have pushed through a solution with the help of Labour votes.
And a further recent example of the British system’s merits lies in the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on abortion and gun controls. Both decisions flew in the face of public opinion and relied on an interpretation of the constitution that revolves around the intentions of the founding fathers in the 18th century. It is simply absurd that a 21st century nation should be subject to the ethics of the founding fathers who referred to “merciless Indian savages” in the declaration of independence, did not believe in universal suffrage and did believe in slavery. If Britain had not moved on, we would still have aristocratic prime ministers controlling the Commons through “rotten boroughs”.
Don’t get me wrong. The British system has lots of flaws. But when it comes to getting rid of rotten leaders, it has just proved its worth.